Micro-, Macro-, or Telescopic: How Big Is the “Celebrity” Problem?

Yesterday we began our discussion of “celebrity” and “rock star” pastors with some consideration of definition.  We can’t begin to unravel this issue without first defining the main concepts.  What exactly do we mean when we refer to “celebrity pastors” and “rock star pastors”?

After some considerable throat-clearing, here’s where we (at least, I) landed:

Celebrity Status–a social standing conferred or withheld by some public or audience.

Celebrity–an individual on whom celebrity status has been conferred, without regard to their merit or their intention.  They have a high- or popular-profile in media or other outlets important to the public.

Celebrity-Seeking–that behavior that looks for the applause and adulation of others, that aims to maintain a positive portrayal of self in the public, often on superficial and dishonest grounds.  See also idolatry, pride, self-aggrandizement, self-exaltation, delusions of grandeur.

While I don’t like the terms for their negative connotation, I hope these definitions at least allow us to distinguish group and individual levels of analysis; focus on observable behavior without saddling pastors with uncharitable labels; and better assign responsibility for any celebrity-making or celebrity-seeking problems.  By attempting to define terms, I’m raising basic questions about the propriety of pointing at public and influential pastors as though they’ve anointed and proclaimed themselves to be “celebrities.”

But there’s another critical aspect to good definition work when developing a theory: scope.  How large or small is the phenomena?  How many people are affected, participate, or share in the problem?  Without an appropriate idea of scope, we’re left guessing about whether we’re facing a tsunami or a trickle.  We’re liable to either over- or under-respond to the problem, to either overlook a problem really there or imagine a problem that’s not.  Scope becomes critical to solution.

How Big a Problem Is Celebrity-Making and Celebrity-Seeking in Contemporary Evangelicalism?

Now, that’s an important question.  Does anyone have an answer?  Re-phrase (since everybody has an answer): Does anyone have measurable and reliable answer?

Probably not.  We’re at the cruel  mercy of anecdote and perception.  People are sometimes fond of saying “perception is reality.”  I don’t know where that saying got it’s start, but it’s not true.  Perception is perception. Only reality is reality.  And if we’re interested in actually addressing the problem, we need to attend to what’s really real.  We need to ask the scope question on two levels.

The Celebrity-Making Level.  Nearly everyone commenting on this issue acknowledges that the evangelical crowds and conference goers have some responsibility in celebrity-making.  I’ve argued in the previous post that only the audience can confer celebrity status on a person.  Thus, the crowds bear the bulk of the responsibility for celebrity-making.

Much is made of conference attendees who line up to greet speakers, ask questions, shake hands, and seek autographs.  ”There!  See!  That’s the big problem!” some exclaim.  The anecdotal evidence suggests there’s a problem among mostly 20-somethings clamoring to take pictures with their favorite “celebrity pastor.”  How large a problem is this?  It’s difficult to estimate, but let’s just take the “mega-conference” (another horrible phrase) attendees as an example.

Young 20- to 30-somethings make up–what?–forty to fifty percent of the larger conferences available today.  So a conference boasting 5,000 attendees might hold some 2,000-3,000 persons in this demographic.  That’s considerable–and encouraging!  One observer speculates that a lot of these attenders are “conference Christians” who make the rounds on the conference circuit.  So, maybe there’s some over-representation caused by their multiple appearances?

I don’t know.  But here’s what I can say as someone who speaks at his share of conferences and enjoys meeting people there: Most of my conversations display little resemblance to the perceptions of some who disapprovingly watch the line of attendees approach the velvet rope.  Let me give you some examples from recent conferences:

* There’s the young Asian pair, student workers at a major university, asking how they should contribute to the well-being of their church as it goes through a particular difficult struggle.

* There’s the young man who asked me to summarize one of my books.  Then, without a hint of embarrassment said, “Thanks for that summary.  Sounds good.  I might consider buying it.”  My wife and I laughed for two nights on that one.

* There’s the pastor and his wife who’ve miscarried a couple times and are currently facing a setback in an adoption.  He’s also suffering in the pastorate and they just wanted to pray.

* I think of the several folks who wanted to express appreciation for this or that sermon they heard and benefitted from 1, 2, even 4 years ago.

* A couple young African Americans come to mind who wanted to take a picture and simply encourage me–one African American in the sea of faces to another.

* Many times someone wants to talk about Muslim evangelism or share that they’re heading to a predominantly Muslim country to serve.  We pray and I try to encourage them as they serve the Master in this way.

* Ladies sometimes ask how they can support their pastor/elder husbands.

* Sometimes the people you think are fans are actually staff and friends from the church or from earlier in life.

I could go on.  What people may suspect as “personality cult” and “celebrity gawking” is very often meaningful personal exchanges of one sort or another.  There are times where a few young guys (I do agree that the folks who appear “enamored” tend to be younger) have seemed taken in some way.  But it’s rare in my experience.  That may simply mean I’m no celebrity–a conclusion I’d be happy to hear.  But even as I listen in on some of the longer lines and discussions forming around other speakers, I’m mostly hearing earnest questions about truth, application, or suggested reading.

Okay… so scope of the celebrity-making aspect of this problem in my admittedly unscientific anecdotal perception: 10% of the young conference attendees.  Maybe.  Assuming the figures I proposed earlier (5,000 total with about 40 percent 20- to 30-somethings), we’re talking about 200 folks in absolute numbers.  That’s ten percent of the demographic and about 5 percent overall.  Double the percentage of the demographic and we’re talking 400 of 5,000 and just shy of 10 percent of the conference overall.  Again, nothing scientific here.  Just perception.  Happy to hear more reliable estimates.

But does this sound to you like a pandemic?

And, if I’m correct in assuming that the adulation tends to accrue among younger conference attendees, then I’m all the more hopeful rather than worried.  Why?  They’re going to mature.  They’re going to grow out of it, and there are a lot of good men and tough experiences that are going to help them grow out of it.  It may be that a more benign immaturity may be the taproot of much of what we think is a “celebrity-making” impulse “sweeping” through the church.

Celebrity-Seeking Level.  But we have to also address the phenomena at the level of the individual pastor.  We all maintain that pastors up-front have some responsibility for redirecting unhealthy and, at times, ungodly attention.  But the more pressing question to me is: To what extent is celebrity seeking behavior an identifiable problem among evangelical pastors?  What is the scope of the problem at the individual pastor level?

Writers and bloggers sometimes us the “rock star” and “celebrity” labels to imply that the pastor himself is out to create fans and celebrity.  I think that claims is dramatically overblown.  Here’s what I wrote on April 20, 2011, and I still maintain this position:

How many brothers do we know who are trying to be ‘celebrities’?  Quite frankly, if we knew that or observed that in a man’s character, wouldn’t we be repulsed?  I can’t name a man at the conferences I attend that I can say is self-seeking in that way, who wants the celebrity spotlight.  … For that reason, isn’t “celebrity pastor” a bit of an unnecessary slur?  Doesn’t it suggest a motive we’d have to interrogate?  A motive we ought to have some evidence of before we assign the tag?

Were a man seeking celebrity he would not be fit for the pastorate.  Point blank.  He would be disqualified, in my opinion.  He would be greedy for gain, lacking temperance and self-control, a spiritual novice really.  He could not be an elder in the church I serve.  And if that label “sticks” where I am personally concerned, then I need someone to help me see it so that I can resign immediately.  Unless we wish to call into question the fitness of every well-known pastor and preacher simply because he is well-known, I suggest we be much more restrained in our use of these labels, perhaps tossing them from our lexicon altogether.

Let me be as direct as I can be.  Of all the pastors I have met, know, and have had the privilege of serving with in my few years of ministry (pastors “in my camp”), I can think of only one that might be liable to the charge of self-seeking and currying “celebrity” or “rock star” status.  Might because while I find some aspects of his ministry highly questionable, to call him a “celebrity-seeker” is a step too far with my limited knowledge of the man personally.  While I will not name that person, I want to be clear about my feelings toward others I know who are unfairly named, implicated, or even thought to be criticized by me.  It’s not James MacDonald.  Though fellow TGC members, I don’t know James much at all, and I certainly don’t have a viewing stand on his heart to conclude that he’s a “celebrity-seeker” or “rock star pastor.”  Some people thought the timing of the multi-site and Elephant Room posts meant I was “gunning for” James.  That’s simply not true.  Representations to the contrary are false.  Moreover, it’s not John Piper.  Who fights against celebrity more than John?  It’s not Tim Keller.  Who is more unassuming and even shy than Tim?  It’s not John MacArthur.  Who beats the drum for ministry faithfulness and word-based integrity more than John?  It’s not Matt Chandler.  It’s not C.J. Mahaney.  It’s not a whole host of other guys who sometimes become poster children for these accusations simply because their ministries are large or they write books or people enjoy listening to their preaching.

Size doesn’t create celebrity.  Fruitful writing may make a person known, but that doesn’t equate to “celebrity-seeking.”  Nor does unusual gifting create celebrity.  The flesh creates, seeks, sustains, and revels in celebrity.  I have not and I do not put any of these men or any of the other men with whom I closely serve in this category.

I suppose that means I think the scope of the problem is smaller than some others perceive it.  Saying the scope is small is not the same as saying the problem is non-existent.  Saying that I might identify one man “in my camp” does not nullify other assessments people might make either about “my camp” or about others in broader evangelicalism.  Indeed, if I were to put on a wide-angle lens I could think of quite a few other worthies for the “celebrity-seeker” label.

Naming the Names in My Tribe

But right now I’m writing about my own tribe.  We’re criticizing ourselves, a good exercise lest we become blind to rather important issues.  As we look at ourselves, we need some data about the scope of the problem.  We can become Chicken Littles castigating every well-known pastor with unfounded suspicions and broad accusations about the falling sky of “celebrity culture.”  That’s not a good outcome.  We can do better.  We need to do better.

The issue at hand is too important for undiscerning use of phrases, phrases themselves co-opted from the secular celebrity world.  The terms engage simultaneously in the worst kind of exaggeration and the worst kind of trivialization.  They exaggerate our familiarity with the people and dynamics at work while trivializing the lethal spiritual danger that such behavior could represent.  We use the terms believing we know more than we actually do while missing the significant opportunities for correction and restoration where the problems actually lurk.

If we’re going to use these terms, we need to define them.  And once we’ve defined them clearly, including the scope of the problem, we should name names.  In fact, the easiest way to define the scope would be to name names and cite the evidence.  I think the charge is that serious, and I think the people who come under a cloud of suspicion absent definition and naming names deserve better from us as brothers.  If we like these terms and use them pejoratively, we should take the prophet’s stance, point the finger at the kings, and say, “David, you’re the man.”

But naming names is a decision with gravity.  We don’t do that lightly.  That’s good.  But we shouldn’t avoid the accountability of naming names by slinging mud on everyone with generic charges.  Slinging mud from the safe distance of our laptops… well, it takes no courage to do that.  Again, our brothers and our Lord deserve better.